Evan Neal has a legitimate NIL deal, but that isn't stopping others from pay-for-play | Goodbread

Chase Goodbread
The Tuscaloosa News

Along the drive from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, one can't miss Evan Neal, flexing his massive biceps across a billboard promoting national law firm Morgan & Morgan. At 350 pounds, the former Alabama football star offensive tackle, now the prized first-round draft pick of the New York Giants, was the perfect fit for the firm's "size matters" advertising campaign that highlighted its broad reach of offices in all 50 states.

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Every business that's written a check for a college athlete's name, image and likeness falls into one of two all-important categories: those who care about getting ROI (return on investment), and those who don’t. Morgan & Morgan falls into the quickly-vanishing former category, and the NCAA is suddenly here to help.

The governing body for college athletics released its latest posturing on the NIL landscape Monday. It's quite a word salad, vaguely outlining plans to police the NIL space and warning against the use of NIL payments to induce recruits to sign with a particular school, a practice that's become rampant over the 10 months since the NIL era dawned. It directed the NCAA enforcement staff to take aim at "the most severe violations of recruiting rules" that have already occurred, a harbinger for the ridiculous million-dollar deals going to athletes that aren't even out of high school yet.

Deals, in other words, offered by those who don't give a flip about ROI.

We don't know how much money Morgan & Morgan put in Neal's pocket – that's Neal's business, and should stay that way – but do we really need the amount to know that the law firm got into the NIL space expecting ROI?

We know Neal wasn’t NIL-induced to sign with Alabama, because NIL didn't exist when he was a recruit.

We know he wasn't NIL-induced to stay at Alabama, because he was off to the NFL the minute he was draft-eligible.

And, perhaps most importantly, we know Neal wasn't being paid for nothing, because Morgan & Morgan struck NIL deals with athletes from schools all over the country: Kentucky, West Virginia, Georgia, Georgia Tech and others. Georgia Bulldogs nose guard Jordan Davis was featured on billboards in Georgia as part of the same "size matters" ad campaign.

It's pretty safe to assume any brand that enters into NIL deals with athletes from multiple schools is looking for a return on those deals. In stark contrast, boosters who usurp the intent of NIL to buy recruits aren't going to help anyone's school but their own, and their indifference to ROI will drive the price for the Evan Neals of college athletics – players who've actually built legitimate NIL value through their play on the field – right out of sight.

On Monday, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey briefly touched on the polar opposites of what was intended, versus what is being  practiced.

“It’s (meant to be) actual name, image and likeness activity. So, for a payment, there’s an action," Sankey said. "A payment consistent with the action, as opposed to just, what I read, seems to be simply payment.”

As big as Morgan & Morgan might be, it will ultimately judge the success of its ad campaign in the same way a mom-and-pop flower shop would: based on whether the value it contracted brought more business to its door than it cost.

What a novel concept.

By threatening action against NIL payments as a recruiting inducement, the NCAA's huff-and-puff release indirectly aims to help keep brands that want to enter the NIL space for the intended reasons in the game. The proverbial toothpaste, of course, is out of the tube. The NCAA's effort to put it back is a messy task, fraught with the same peril that brought about NIL in the first place: lawsuits.

And if it fails, the concept of ROI in NIL will be DOA.

Reach Chase Goodbread @cgoodbread@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread.

Tuscaloosa News sport columnist Chase Goodbread.